Monthly Archives: March 2014


Earlier today, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the former defence minister who led last summer’s coup in Egypt, announced to absolutely no-one’s surprise that he would run for president of Egypt. 

I have no faith in al-Sisi. None whatsoever. The Morsi regime which he toppled was maneuvering itself into an authoritarian position in an undemocratic way, and I confess that I initially thought that maybe the military coup could change things for the better, if the military reset democracy and held elections. By now, we’ve seen that this is not the case, and we’ve seen what kind of government he would run. The political violence carried out by his administration has been horrific. During the crackdowns on legal and mostly non-violent protests in August, over a thousand people were summarily killed in massacres.

This week, 529 people were summarily sentenced to death, presumably on al-Sisi’s orders or with his okay. The trials — trial, actually, there was just one — were a farcical show, which even The Soviet Union couldn’t have bettered. The whole production lasted an hour, according to Human Rights Watch:

The March 22, 2014, trial, in which the vast majority of defendants were tried in absentia, took place in under an hour. The prosecution did not put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant, even though it had compiled significant evidence during its investigations, and the court prevented defense lawyers from presenting their case or calling witnesses, three of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch. A second summary session was held two days later solely to announce the verdict.

Does that sound like something that should happen under a man who wants to be elected president? A further 683 people will be tried in early April under similarly summary conditions. Over a thousand people assassinated by a court for daring to be opposed to their government. This is in addition to the 2.000 activists who have already been murdered.

(Edit: No, wait, breaking news: another 919 will be tried under similar conditions soon.)

An Egyptian official gave this amazing quote to The Associated Press:  “We are in exceptional circumstances. We don’t have time to summon each and every defendant, prove their presence and confirm who are their lawyers.”

I mean, you can’t just expect us to give people fair trials. That would just take way to long, we have a country to run here!


The simple truth, which should be obvious to any impartial observer, is this: any race in which al-Sisi is a candidate will be an unfair one. Any election held in which the army and the security services and the government media backs one candidate is not a free election. If he knew anything about democracy he would resign. He will never be a democratic leader. Because he is a profoundly undemocratic man. And a mass murderer. He should be tried and locked up.

In choosing whether or not to trust this awful tyrant with the keys to the state, I suggest they follow the advice of the British philosopher John Locke. Locke knew a thing or two about tyrannical power and what the people should do about it. His views on the matter informed another great revolution: the American one.

I give below some abridged passages from the Two Treatises of Government which I stumbled across this evening. I’ll put some of my own commentary in there and bold some of the most relevant sections.

Sec. 221. There is therefore … another way whereby governments are dissolved, and that is, when the legislative, or the prince … act contrary to [the people’s] trust. First, The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community [like the Egyptian military, secret services or courts, say], masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.

Sec. 222.… whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.

Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor [al-Sisi], who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust, when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly preengages the electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has, by sollicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise, won to his designs; and employs them to bring in such, who have promised before-hand what to vote, and what to enact.

Thus to regulate candidates and electors, and new-model the ways of election, what is it but to cut up the government by the roots, and poison the very fountain of public security? for the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the common-wealth, and the public good should, upon examination, and mature debate, be judged to require.

This, those who give their votes before they hear the debate, and have weighed the reasons on all sides, are not capable of doing. To prepare such an assembly as this, and endeavour to set up the declared abettors of his own will, for the true representatives of the people, and the law-makers of the society, is certainly as great a breach of trust, and as perfect a declaration of a design to subvert the government, as is possible to be met with. To which, if one shall add rewards and punishments visibly employed to the same end, and all the arts of perverted law made use of, to take off and destroy all that stand in the way of such a design, and will not comply and consent to betray the liberties of their country, it will be past doubt what is doing. What power they ought to have in the society, who thus employ it contrary to the trust went along with it in its first institution, is easy to determine; and one cannot but see, that he, who has once attempted any such thing as this, cannot any longer be trusted.

John Locke understood this in the 17th century. I hope that the Egyptian people will make sure that al-Sisi now understands it.


I just listened to an amazing conversation from Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing. It was on the obesity epidemic in the US. Now, the obesity epidemic is really hard to imagine without having been there. It is a visible — very visible — presence in the streets. And in the health statistics. And sugar is at the root of the problem.

The show features Dr. Robert Lustig. His claim to fame is a widely publicised talk which is available online:

A side note: a thing Lustig (which, apropos nothing, is German for “frolicking”, “gay”, literally: lustful) mentions is how 80 % of supermarket food items has high fructose corn syrup in it. I can attest to that. Whenever I visit I find that after eating my usual fare for a few weeks, I wind up gaining pounds I wouldn’t have gained back home

I think the conversation with Baldwin is good, wide-ranging and interesting with a lot of good information and facts about sugar, obesity and public health being bantered about. You are a lot smarter about how deeply messed up and — I hate the word, but it seems not inappropriate here — unnatural the Western addiction to sugar is by the end of the talk. It’s well worth your time. The second part of the show, with Martin Horn, who was high up in the US correctional system, is also really interesting, particularly when he gets to talking about drug legalisation, a cause which is hugely important.

But anyway, I wanted to write this post to do three things.

I wanted to point you to the interview, which is here.

I wanted to tell you to cut down on the sugar, already. And do exercise. Those two things are among the most significant boosts to my personal wellbeing and me and Informed Medical Scientifically Grounded Opinion can hardly recommend it enough.

And I wanted to just say a big, huge WTF to a weird thing that happens at the end of the Lustig interview. He is asked for the top two recommendations he would make for public policy on what he calls the “obesity pandemic”, the leading public health problem. He has two: taking fructose off the “Generally Regarded As Safe” list by the FDA and limiting access for sugar to infants and children.

Now, those are two great recommendations which should be done immediately. But why not make in addition the two bell-ringingly obvious policy choices for restricting sugar in the diets of the US population:

1. Taxing sugar to within an inch of its life as what it is: a hazardous luxury good — like tobacco, alcohol and cocaine.  Why not make a can of coke cost $5? And let me be clear how not kidding I am about this. There is no earthly reason why there should be that much sugar in anything. (We can make an exception for fruit juices without additives and other foods with different benefits.)

2. Restricting by law the maximum amount of sugar per serving size in processed food products. And the maximum serving size. If people want the crazy amounts, they can bake it themselves.

I wonder why taxing something is considered such a crazy idea in the US that even a public policy expert like dr. Lustig, when given free license to have his every fantasy fulfilled, ends up not advocating it. It would immediately cut down the amount of sugar eaten in the US.

It’s a small sign of a big problem. Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp, has been regularly tweeting islamophobic conspiracy theories about the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight. The disappearance showed that jihadis were making trouble for China, that the plane was hidden in a secret SPECTRE lair in Northern Pakistan, etc. Now, Arsalan Iftikhar, a muslim human rights lawyer and commentator, has righly called him out on it.

Smoke, fire: what is this a symptom of? This is a deeper malaise. The Murdoch empire is deeply saturated in islamophobic ideation. We see it most starkly perhaps in the British tabloid The Sun:

Ah, yes, Norway’s “Al-Qaeda massacre”, perpetrated by anti-Muslim right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. A headline made before any evidence had been released. And after the news that this was a blond, blue-eyed terrorist should have maybe made someone in the newsroom think twice. That was just one of the worse ones. The low-grade ones are somehow worse, gradually shifting the conversation on religion and Islam.

Another example is Fox News. The US’ leading cable news operation has had anti-muslim bigotry as a staple part of its programming. From the Sunday morning book chats:

To the pundits:

Which also rakes in advertisement money from anti-muslim hate groups:

And if they can’t quite show your ads in prime-time, they can probably find a way to show that ad anyway. (Though they tastefully blur the word “savage”).

Check out the best of 2013 reel!

I highlight the most dramatic examples, but this has been a problem in a huge swathe of News Corp’s holdings. Rupert Murdoch, whether it was by creating an architecture for it, or by leading by example, has created the most massive and widespread purveyor of discourse-shifting anti-muslim propaganda. A part of the explanation is, it seems, the man himself and his apparently quite strongly held beliefs about Muslims.

A more important problem is that Murdoch’s organisation didn’t merely find this opinions lying around in the population and played to them. His institutions helped create them. Through decades now of anti-immigrant ideas, News Corp has helped create the ideologized islamophobia which we now see in full bloom across the West. That’s worth remembering when considering the role of News Corp on public discourse.


I remember the winter it got so cold, the enormous tree in our backyard quite simply snapped one morning. It split with a snap louder than the world, and keeled over onto the power lines one morning before breakfast, while my parents were boiling the kettle for tea. I looked out and saw the split tree as a broken arm. A fixture in my childhood reality cracked and out of joint, the kitchen suddenly dark.

Later that same, bizarre winter, I ran to catch my brother in a game of tag in the garden. It had snowed to more than twice my height and my brother had shoveled trenches through the yard. I remember it as a labyrinth, my brother’s footsteps and laughter somewhere ahead of me. The house, the garden, barely visible in glimpses above the snowline.

We went walking on the lake, which froze nearly solid, and ran through the the withered, immobilized reeds. I remember seeing shriveled apples covered with snow on fruit trees in neighbouring yards on the way home.

I remember learning to ski. My childhood winter and easter vacations filled with skiing trips to remote cabins in the mountains. Oranges, raisins and chocolate in the sun. The pure, rushing sweetness of going downhill in the blinding glare and not being sure you can make it without falling.


I don’t ski much anymore. I want to, but the snow doesn’t stay anymore. The sky is slate-grey and uniform for weeks at a time, and the light I remember from my first winters here is only rarely seen. Sleet occasionally gets us excited, but eventually the slush browns with meltwater and goes away. The branches stay dark and wet all winter before exploding with green weeks early, crushing our hopes for snow with bouquets of snowdrops and lent lilys. My skis are in the cellar. They’ve been there since January of last year.

An affecting short essay by Zadie Smith was published in the New York Review of Books this week. It shows the author trying to find a way to eulogize the lost seasons of her childhood, now lost to the steady drip, drip of climate change.

There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.


It’s amazing the side roads you can will yourself down to avoid the four-lane motorway ahead. England was never as wet as either its famous novels suggest or our American cousins presume. The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things—quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives—are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children—or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness.

It’s a powerful piece. I thought it beautifully articulated something I’ve missed in the unbearably frustrating conversations on climate change. The sense that the conversation is couched in entirely wrong terms. That there is something deeply improper about matter-of-factly discussing the loss of something so great. I listened to a lecture on climate change this morning which was so technically macroeconomic I couldn’t understand it.

The Stern Review’s evaluation of environmental protection relies on extremely low discount rates, an assumption criticized by many economists. The Review also stresses that great uncertainty is a critical element for optimal environmental policies. An appropriate model for this policy analysis requires sufficient risk aversion and fat-tailed uncertainty to get into the ballpark of explaining the observed equity premium. A satisfactory framework, based on Epstein-Zin/Weil preferences, also separates the coefficient of relative risk aversion (important for results on environmental investment) from the intertemporal elasticity of substitution for consumption (which matters little).

I’m not even sure what the lecturer is saying here. It might be something I would entirely agree with. But still, what nags me is that this seems a wrong language to talk about climate change in. A language with no room for the sacred, the — I use this term as an atheist — holy complexity of nature, of incomprehensibly complex biomes and organisms, millions of years of evolution crushed to nothing by market forces.


We need a way of talking that will tell us the truth: we broke the world. We burned our childhoods down. Scattered our remembered seasons and denied them to our grandchildren. For your country, maybe we took your future or something far worse than winter, but it’s enough that my daughter might not ever need to know how to ski, and it’s killing me.

What’s stopping us? Zadie Smith blames two forces in particular: moral relativism — I didn’t find that argument entirely convincing, but it’s worth a discussion — and apocalyptic longings. The British philosopher John Gray has made a living out of identifying that longing, and he finds it always in the same exact place Zadie Smith finds it: the fatalist, liberal consciousness which is letting winter melt. Here’s Zadie Smith again:

I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us.


Sing an elegy for the washed away! For the cycles of life, for the saltwater marshes, the houses, the humans—whole islands of humans. Going, going, gone! But not quite yet. The apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future—unless you happen to live in Mauritius, or Jamaica, or the many other perilous spots. According to recent reports, “if emissions of global greenhouse gases remain unchanged,” things could begin to get truly serious around 2050, just in time for the seventh birthday party of my granddaughter. (The grandchildren of the future are frequently evoked in elegies of this kind.) Sometimes the global, repetitive nature of this elegy is so exhaustively sad—and so divorced from any attempts at meaningful action—that you can’t fail to detect in the elegists a fatalist liberal consciousness that has, when you get right down to it, as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn.

I take away three things from this essay:

1. The brilliant truth that “belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised.”

2. The need to combat fatalism, cynicism and nihilism, to ignore them and to banish them from the discussion of climate change.

3. The need to “Sing an elegy for the washed away! For the cycles of life, for the saltwater marshes, the houses, the humans—whole islands of humans. Going, going, gone!”

I find that I have been singing that song for a while now, in my head. In the remembered winters of childhood and the frustration of the snowless present. I’m glad Zadie Smith reminded me. Maybe I’ll start singing out loud.


When I finished my last post on Ukraine by saying “whenever someone is trying to deny you the full picture, they are not your friend”, it was a sort of quote. Back in the terrible early days of the Iraq War, I stumbled across a blog post or an article by the publishing house editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden describing the 2000 “election” of George W. Bush to be the president of the US. I found her words to be remarkably clear:

You can take this as a rule: No matter what else they’re saying, anyone who says we can dispense with counting the ballots and observing the law is not your friend. Neither is anyone who tries to take power without having the laws and ballots on his side. Neither is anyone who withholds vital information on that score, or condones others’ disrespect for it.

It can’t be said clearer than that. When the Bush team said we didn’t need to count the votes again, didn’t need to be sure, they were essentially saying that they didn’t care about democracy. That, right there, should have been a gigantic red flag to every single person who voted for George W. Bush and the Republican ticket that they had made a terrible, terrible mistake. They had voted for someone who was not interested in the rule of law or democracy. In fact, this turned out to be the case.

What Nielsen Hayden was saying is quite simply an indispensable rule for living in a democracy: no matter which side you’re on, no matter if you stand to gain immensely by whatever’s happening, no matter if it will save you time or money, no matter if it will get you laid or a free plane ride to Disneyland or a double Whopper with extra sauce — it doesn’t matter. If someone is saying you can suspend the rules of a democracy, just this once, they are not your friend. If you’re talking about the election to supervisor of the PTA board or the US presidential elections: I don’t care.

What we just saw in Crimea may very well be the will of the Crimean people. They may very well want to secede to Russia, and if it is really true that 93 % of the people want that, as the referendum results seemed to claim, then that is the path that country should take. But the presence of the Russian army ensures that this is not a serious election result, and is in fact only delaying a legitimate secession by Crimea.

But you can’t have a free and fair referendum while an invading army is occupying the region — in fact, the army of one of the “parties” being voted for.

You can’t have a free and fair referendum while the international community is in agreement that international law is being violated (because, you know, international law is being violated). Or while the election is being held to be illegally organised in the country in which it takes place.

You can’t have a free and fair referendum without a proper debate on matters of national urgency in a free press, deliberating at peace and over time, with all viewpoints proposed, argued and heard.

You can’t have a free and fair referendum organised in less than three weeks during an invasion, a state of exception.

You can’t have a free and fair referendum when one of the possible policy alternatives (that Crimea should remain in Ukraine as it was) isn’t even on the ballot.

You can’t have a free and fair  referendum while one of the parties in the election is actively blocking and censoring opposition activist websites.

It is obvious from the behaviour of the Russian aggressors that if you like democracy, they are not your friends. They are trying to subvert the course of democracy for their own ends. They are acting like antidemocratic thugs. And that’s actually the definition of being antidemocratic thugs.

If you happen to be one of the people who think the Crimea should secede — you should be asking for the Russians to leave. The only way to get that done in a proper way is to have the Russians withdraw, and then have a proper public debate for at least a year, so everyone gets the time to think things through. And then, with international observers present, with a properly organised, executed and audited referendum, Crimea can get what it wants.

If Putin doesn’t let the Crimean people have that — say it with me — he is not their friend.

Pipe-smoking, tea-drinking: the man was all British. Flickr / Rollingstone64 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’m really, really going to miss Tony Benn. A delightfully devoted politician, a man of a deep and profound conviction, a proud socialist — one of the few of his kind left in the British Labour Party — even though he came to being a far leftist late, only after being an MP for 20 years and having served in the Cabinet.

Today, he is remembered as one of the few remaining great leftist politicians in Great Britain at all. In the wake of New Labour’s dispiriting race for the centre, he was one of the few members of the old guard trying to pull back the other way, to reinvent and reinvigorate socialism.

Benn, after he retired from an extraordinarily long career, was widely regarded as a sort of cheery old man saying nice things about human nature and generosity and sharing. But I think we should remember him as exactly what he kept reminding us throughout his autumn years that he was: dangerous, radical to the core, a man who wanted to change the most basic functions of society. I mean “dangerous” here as the greatest compliment I can pay. That was probably not how The Sun meant it when they asked the question if he was “the most dangerous man in Britain”.

He had incredibly conviction and stamina. He served in Parliament for fifty years and when he left, he described it as “leaving parliament in order to spend more time on politics”.

What I think I like about Benn the most is this revolutionary character which you always understood to grow out of a profoundly empathic and caring mind. He always recognized the deep connection between socialism and democracy that the communists never understood. The ultimate socialist idea, as he says in this beautiful, short little video at the Guardian, is democracy. Democracy, done proper, inverts the traditional hierarchies, upsets the rigid power structures of wealth and force, and lets people decide their fates together.

I also subscribe very much to the idea he mentions here that the great struggles are never ended. They keep going and going and going and going until the thing they are fighting over is transformed so fundamentally that the fight ceases to make sense. In a sense, we are still fighting much the same battles as the Chartists, the Sufragettes, the abolitionists. The fights of early capitalist society are still our fights. And Benn was on the right side, always. Humanism and democracy is socialism.


Edit: The Guardian, obviously, is the place to go to read about this. They have a great obituary and a whole barrage of tributes and videos to watch if you want to know more about him.

Uganda be kidding me in terms of human rights abuses in terms of journalisms in terms of Rachel Maddow.

In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.

This time tomorrow, we’ll have results in terms of what happened there, but to see the Republicans throwing their own candidate under the bus, shows you that they are very worried.

It`s going to be a pretty solid August in terms of those auto sales.

He will be seen as a one term president whose political failures and not achieving a second term will ultimately overshadow what he got done in terms of policy.

I think it`s an opportunity cost in terms of what they did and what they didn`t do.

This year, the Democrats have banked big margins in terms of who is turning up for early voting this year.

What Republicans are now articulating in terms of their hopes for tomorrow`s election is that they may be able to stop that 20-year trend.

A language virus which is destroying English: “in terms of“.

Once you have noticed, there is no escape from it. Everyone uses it for everything. Especially in terms of spoken English, and especially especially in terms of that weird, formal-informal language they use in terms of cable news (most, but not all, of the quotes above are in terms of the Rachel Maddow Show — she is quite excellent, but she is also especially egregious in terms of her use of the phrase).

In terms of actually means X expressed in some formally different way. There are connotations of using a different language, a different taxonomy. So for instance we can say, like in a Wikipedia article on rhyming metrics: “The following lists describe the [verse] feet in terms of vowel length.” Or you can say “I want to express this number in terms of a percentage.”

What it does not mean — what it should not mean — is I want to use concept X which I just mentioned and put it together with concept Y over here in some general and unspecific way without bothering to find the correct bridge between them. 

It’s also a cogntive trick which saves you working memory: it sometimes saves you having to phrase the concept that comes after before you have finished phrasing the concept that comes before. So you can get done with one cognitive problem at a time. Which is nice, if you’re short-minded.

Let’s use the phrase from above as an example. Note the italicised phrase:

“What Republicans are now articulating in terms of their hopes for tomorrow`s election is that they may be able to stop that 20-year trend.”

He should have said:

The hope Republicans are now articulating for tomorrow`s election, is that they may be able to stop that 20-year trend.

Note how in order to use the second, more efficient phrase you need to have thought of both the idea that the Republicans are articulating something, and then that the thing they articulated is their hopes for tomorrow’s election. You need to have finished the thought before you start speaking.

On cable news, that’s a luxury. “In terms of” saves you from thinking the entire sentence through because you know that you have a bridge to absolutely anywhere in terms of where that sentence will go, in terms of the umbrella of job creation. The listeners think to themselves that a connection has been made, when really quite often it hasn’t.

Let me correct the quotes above in terms of what should actually have been said:

Its impact on Christianity is probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.

This time tomorrow, we’ll have the results, but seeing the Republicans throwing their own candidate under the bus shows you that they are very worried.

It`s going to be a pretty solid August in auto sales.

He will be seen as a one term president whose political failures and failure to achieve a second term will ultimately overshadow the policy changes he got done.

I think it`s an opportunity cost of what they did and what they didn`t do.

This year, the Democrats have banked big margins on who is turning up for early voting this year.